On 23 October 2019, the United Nations Secretary-General announced the establishment of a High-Level Panel on Internal Displacement in an event organised to mark the 10-anniversary of the adoption of the African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Africa, also known as the Kampala Convention.
This announcement comes at a time when contemporary migration continues to take disturbing shapes, trends, and dynamics. Currently, over 41.3 million people have been uprooted within their own country and away from a place they called home. Whereas the push and pull factors to international displacement are numerous, majority of IDPs are generated by civil unrest, natural hazards, and due to development induced displacements among others.
IDPs are one of the most vulnerable forced migrant populations and with possibilities of becoming refugees in the future if reasons for their displacements are not properly resolved;
Firstly, IDPs are habitually located in hard-to-reach areas with poor road and communication infrastructures and as such, often away from the lenses of national and international media and periodic monitoring and reporting. Combined with limited understanding on the dynamics of internal displacement, the silence of the media only worsens situations which would otherwise prompt international callouts and responses. In respect of state sovereignty, very little however can be done unless such states appeal to international community for assistance.
Second, IDPs often receive less international attention because they are ostensibly under the protection of their states – unless the state is unable or unwilling to provide appropriate protection. Depending on the material possibility and political willingness, reliance on states sometimes increases the vulnerability of IDPs given that states can sometimes be active players and/or contributors to internal displacements e.g. in the context of development-induced displacements or where governments shoves people in gazetted IDPs in the guise of and fulfilling their ‘responsibility to protect’. Therefore, protection of IDPs cannot be left to such domestic governments alone.
Thirdly, and for IDPs emanating from internal conflicts, IDPs are often trapped in war zones or areas closer to active conflicts and therefore grapple with heightened insecurity resulting from proliferation of small arms, physical attacks, abduction, torture, and sexual violence meted on IDP population. This among other factors makes IDP situation hardly visible to national and international community.
Lastly, IDPs often struggle with legal protection. The concept ‘IDPs’ in Uganda for example focuses on ‘rural IDPs’ and excludes their urban counterparts. However, hundreds if not thousands of people remain trapped in various urban centres including Acholi Quarters in Kampala, Forest Ward in Holy Rosary Sub-ward in Gulu district among others – many of which are unable or unwilling to return to their original homesteads for numerous socio-economic and personal reasons.
I personally resided in more than one IDP camp during the violent conflict between the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) and the Lord’s Reistant Army (LR). I experienced what it meant to be an IDP while in Ajulu (Gulu district), Pabbo IDP camp (now Amuru district) which was the largest IDP camp in northern as well as in Opit (now in Omoro district) in the mid 1990s through to early 2000s. My experiences therein are worth a documentary or a book if not both. Having been there, I can contend that many IDPs live horrific and hopeless lives – one that no human being should be subjected to let alone children who often suffer wars adults fight.
The announcement of the establishment of a High-Level Panel on Internal Displacement, whereas long overdue, is a huge step forward in the pursuit for sustainable solutions to the plight of IDPs and a major step towards addressing internal displacement world over. As we wait for the final composition of the panel, their terms of reference and assumption of office in early 2020. I join the rest of the world in commending the leadership of the United Nation for this major stride in increasing global attention to internal displacement.
Looking back to recent international events, and specifically to the Wilton Park’s Conference on ‘Internal Displaced Persons: towards more effective international protection and durable solutions’ held in West Sussex, UK from 2-4 September 2019, during with multiple actors from different professional backgrounds gathered to deliberate on the plight of IDPs and in the pursuit for durable solutions, it’s undeniable that a number of actors haven’t given up in the push policy and legislative reforms as well as service provision to IDP – efforts which require collective support for IDPs to realise progressive transformation in their lives.
Thank you to Julia Purcell, the Programme Directors, and the entire Wilton Park team for organising such a historic conference ahead of a major UN decision to establish a High-Level Panel on Internal Displacement. I’m personally delighted and honoured to have been part of this major deliberation and hope that the recommendations of the Wilton Park Conference inform the panel’s intervention early next year, other subsequent establishments and discourse on internal displacements in the years to come. Also, congratulations in advance to the yet to be established panel and looking forward to working together with them directly and/or indirectly.
Indeed, the long wait for the High-Level panel is over but the wait for the operationalisation of the panel may have just began. It has been observed that the failure to address long-term displacement risk undermining the little steps towards the realisation of the Sustainable Development Agenda ahead of 2030. History will judge us all for our complacency or active involvement in addressing factors leading to and fuelling internal displacements world over.
Onen David Ongwech